Not only is Wuthering Heights a powerful love story and a compelling tale of the supernatural, it also offers readers insightful commentary on issues relating to class and morality. Emily Brontë’s novel is a complicated exploration of what happens when the established order of a community is thrown off balance. In the case of the Linton and the Earnshaw families, it is the appearance of Heathcliff, the dark, mysterious orphan, that sets a chain of events in motion that destroys or threatens to destroy the lives of many of the characters. Although it is never clearly articulated, there is some reason to suspect that Heathcliff could be the illegitimate offspring of Mr. Earnshaw, who brings him into his home claiming to have found the child in Liverpool. Heathcliff poses a threat to the Earnshaw family because he is dark-skinned (therefore different), wild, and possibly a half-sibling to the Earnshaw children, Catherine and Hindley. This complication adds a more frightening aspect to the physical, spiritual, and emotional attraction that develops between Catherine and Heathcliff. Added to the possibility of breaking the incest taboo is the problem of social class: Because of his suspect origins, Heathcliff could never fit into the life of the Earnshaw and Linton families.
Brontë employs great skill in making the landscape, the weather, the houses, and even the dogs reflect the opposing emotional climates of the Linton and Earnshaw homes. The Earnshaw residence, Wuthering Heights, is, as its name implies, subject to extremes in weather; winds, snow, and cold buffet the house and grounds. By contrast, Thrushcross Grange, the home of the Lintons and later of Cathy and Edgar, is refined and filled with light, comfort, and opulence. Even the weather seems less severe there. The Grange stands in splendid contrast to the home shared by young Cathy, Hindley, and Heathcliff, a disjuncture made clear in the scene in which Catherine and Heathcliff spy on the Linton children from outside a window at the Grange. The show of temper between Isabella and Linton as they fight over their delicate dog pales in contrast to the vehemence with which those at Wuthering Heights express their emotions. While Heathcliff is disdainful of these soft children, Catherine is captivated—metaphorically and literally. Significantly, from this chance encounter spring all of the troubles that Heathcliff and the Earnshaw and Linton children will endure. Whereas Catherine grows entranced with the soft life at the Grange and with Linton, Heathcliff falls victim to the destructive envy that will finally drive him to destroy everyone with whom he comes in contact. In his mind, the Lintons represent all that he can never be or have.
However, it is above all the love and passionate attraction between Catherine and Heathcliff that destroys the two families. It is Heathcliff’s misunderstanding of the overheard conversation between Catherine and her nurse, Nelly Dean, that causes him to run away and eventually gives him the economic means to effect his revenge against the Earnshaws and the Lintons.
When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after many years’ absence, he finds Catherine and Edgar married. Heathcliff’s anger damages everything it touches, from the ignorant child of Hindley and Frances Earnshaw, the wild Hareton, to Edgar Linton’s delicate sister, Isabella. Heathcliff’s first overt act of revenge against Catherine and Edgar is to pursue and marry Isabella. From this point until he dies years later, Heathcliff’s anger at losing Catherine destroys everyone with whom he comes in contact, including Isabella, his own son, Linton, Catherine’s daughter, young Cathy, and her cousin, Hareton.
Even though both he and Catherine are married, Heathcliff does not leave her in peace. Not content simply to torture his own wife, Isabella, Heathcliff attacks Catherine verbally, and his violence causes her to fall ill and die soon after, while giving birth to young Cathy. Heathcliff never recovers from the loss of Catherine, which remains the reason for his brutal treatment of everyone whom he associates with her. His anger also directly causes his own death. Yet, for all of his violence, hatred, and vindictiveness, Heathcliff does not attain peace of mind or release from grief. He only succeeds in bringing Hindley to financial ruin; capturing Edgar’s fortune; and creating in young Hareton an untutored, violent beast.
As Heathcliff nears his own death, Brontë again uses the weather to mirror a character’s interior turmoil. Heathcliff dies alone while a storm rages around the Heights. He is later found, a window open, the implication being that Catherine finally came to claim him for her own. While this scene is a climax, it does not constitute the resolution of Wuthering Heights, for Brontë provides an ending that offers a ray of hope in the promised union of young Cathy with Hareton. Not only does Cathy “tame” Hareton and teach him to read, she also learns to love and to value him. The union of these two people represents a transformed version of the passions of Catherine and Heathcliff. The first Catherine could not have Heathcliff in this life, but her daughter can hope to build a satisfying life with Hareton. Although Heathcliff and Catherine’s passion cannot survive in this life, Brontë implies that the two lovers are finally united beyond the grave.